Tony Fretton: The art of demanding

Crafts Magazine, July/August 2008, Interview

Q: How do you see the relationship between architect and craft?
A: Making is very peculiar for architects. You imagine something and make a full-size model of it but you don’t actually construct it. lt’s very different from the work of a painter, say, who actually paints pictures, or a maker who makes things, where the maker’s intelligence guides their hands. Whereas with architecture, what you’re doing is directing other people to make things, so it’s a very different process.

Q: And yet often when we talk about a piece of architecture we’ll say it’s very beautifully crafted. lt’s part of the language of architecture.
A: Yes it is, and it’s interesting because architects do have very differing skills. St Catherine’s College in Oxford, by the Danish architect Arne Jacobson, for example is beautifully crafted. There’s a certain intense skill required on the part of the architect to persuade the contractor to build well. So the crafting of a building very much depends upon the architect’s interpersonal skills and their skill at writing specifications and, basically, being demanding.

Q: Do you collaborate directly with craftspeople in your own work?
A: We haven’t done it very often but it’s always been good when we have. At the Quay Arts Cenlre in the lsle of Wight we worked with Jim Partridge, a maker who works with unseasoned wood. That was very fruitful. Quay Arts Centre has a terrace on the edge of a river. I happened to be talking to Jim about a bridge that he was going to make and he said, what are you going to do this terrace in, and said, well, just boarding. And he asked how wide, and told me it was much too narrow and that we needed broader stuff. So from that the client eventually bought a quay, like a dockside platform, disassembled it and put it on the forecourt. And Jim was absolutely right. lt made me understand something about architects like me, that with some things l’m less in control than the craftsperson would be.

Q: Do you think there’s potential for architects to work with craftspeople at an earlier stage for that very reason?
A: Yes I do. ln Holland we’re now working with a design-team artist and at the Camden Arts Centre we worked very well with muf architects. So it’s always a pleasure but it’s not always available to you. For example developers here are extremely unaware of artists and what they bring to a project. There’s also a real tendency for makers’work to descend into ornament and decoration. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. In a lot of Renaissance architecture, the detailing, the
sculptural work was done by an independent sculptor while the Adams Brothers, the Regency architects, worked with a whole group of painters and sculptors who made their fireplaces and ceilings, but that was ornamental.

Q: What are your sources of inspiration for the more crafted aspects of your work?
A: I look at architecture all the time. In books, from aeroplanes, in cars, in passing, all the time. I see how building materials are used and how they might be used in ways that could take my projects in directions l’d like. There are lots of buildings by Peier Zumthor, for example his Thermal Baths in Vals, Switzerland (see Crafts No.175 March/April 2OOZ). He made reclining benches which I thought were going to move and wobble, but of course they were as rigid as they could be and the detailing, which looks impossible, is all very firm. So he’s very very skilful at detailing, he’s a great craftsman but also a very great designer. Someone else whose work I respect very much is David Chipperfield.

Q: Beyond the work of other architects, what inspires you?

A: I like designers like Joe Colombo, Achille Castiglioni and Antonio Citterio
and all the classics like Eames. Plus anything l’ve bought from Apple lately.